The sheer volume of press coverage in recent weeks, in both the United States and Israel, about the views on Israel of Rabbi Richard Jacobs, who has been selected to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie as president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is a measure of how important the Reform movement's support is to that country.
Many, too many, of the articles have focused on Rick Jacobs' association with the New Israel Fund and J Street, and the question of whether this somehow makes him less pro-Israel than his predecessor or most Reform Jews. What could more clearly disprove this assertion than the 600-plus staunchly pro-Israel rabbis affiliated with J Street's rabbinic cabinet, including some of the most prominent rabbinic names in North America?
These leaders find no contradiction between their involvement in AIPAC, with its focus on political support for Israel, and their involvement in these other influential organizations, with their focus on the crucial nature of peace and human rights for Israel's well-being. And all three organizations are abidingly committed to strengthening the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. In embodying these values, Jacobs is in the mainstream of the American Jewish community and the Reform Jewish community. His views are no different in this regard than those of Rabbi Alexander Schindler or Yoffie, the previous leaders of North America's largest Jewish community.
For that reason, I am among the vast majority within our movement who acclaimed his selection not only because of the near-consensus among his acquaintances that he is one of the country's most visionary and accomplished rabbis, the kind of transformative leader that the Reform movement needs to lead us in the next generation, but also because he is such a deeply committed Zionist and lover of Israel, someone whose Zionism is deeply rooted in the principles of Reform Judaism.
The depth of those commitments will become increasingly evident when Jacobs succeeds Yoffie in 2012. His record affirms that he will continue the approach that made Yoffie such an effective and articulate voice for Israel's safety and security.
This is not just a reflection of Rabbi Jacobs' personal views, for this staunch Zionism and support for Israel are enshrined in Reform Judaism - and in the hearts of most of our more than 1.5 million Jews. For us Yom Ha'atzmaut is not only a national celebration but a religious one as well. We have enriched our ritual life with new observances and liturgy rooted in our commitment to Israel. The Israeli Reform siddur, "Avodah Shebalev," has a special Amidah and Kiddush for Independence Day. The new North American Reform siddur, "Mishkan Tefillah," has a special service for Yom Ha'atzmaut, which uses the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a sacred text.
In 1997, marking the centenary of the World Zionist Congress, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a remarkable document, "Reform Judaism and Zionism: A Centenary Platform." It sets forth our commitment to Israel and its people, our vision of a democratic, pluralistic, compassionate and just Jewish state living in peace with its neighbors. The document concludes with the statement: "We believe that the renewal and perpetuation of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael is a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity. While that day of redemption remains but a distant yearning, we express the fervent hope that Medinat Yisrael, living in peace with its neighbors, will hasten the redemption of Am Yisrael, and the fulfillment of our messianic dream of universal peace under the sovereignty of God."
Reform Judaism is not only a Diaspora movement. There is a vibrant, exciting and growing Reform movement within Israel that has built synagogues, community centers, kibbutzim, and schools for children, youth and adults. It ordains rabbis for the Israeli Reform movement (whose leadership is increasingly native Israelis ) at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. It fights for pluralism and justice through the Israel Religious Action Center. It has become part and parcel of the fabric of Israeli life. It is making Judaism accessible to the vast majority of Israeli Jews who do not consider themselves "religious." A recent poll showed that 42 percent of Israelis who view themselves as traditional, and 76 percent of those who describe themselves as secular, view the Reform Movement favorably. Through the Association of Reform Zionists of America , we are raising significant funds to build new institutions and support our Israeli Reform programs, and to deepen and expand the connection between North American Reform Jews and Israel. Reform Jews make up a significant component of the supporters and leaders of our federation system and organizations like AIPAC, which are at the core of North American Jewry's political and financial support for Israel.
While we will always have differences about how best to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlements, the role of religion, and many other things, the one thing about which there is no difference is ahavat yisrael - the love of the people, the land and the state. We in the Reform movement stand in solidarity with Israel as members of a complex, loving and feisty Jewish family. Reform Judaism under both its current and future leadership will always be one of Israel's strongest supporters. Our Zionism can never be separated from our Reform Jewish institutions, identity, practice, values or aesthetics.
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel is rabbi emeritus of Beth Emet: The Free Synagogue, in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
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